Whether creating dream homes for Hong Kong millennials or bringing sophisticated new dining concepts to life, JJ Acuna makes sure each space he designs is a true reflection of its client. He talks to #legend about forsaking bling, finding his purpose and persevering amidst a pandemic
“When you see someone wearing a tailored suit, you know exactly who the tailor is because there’s a certain stitching style, there’s a certain way of putting things together,” says JJ Acuna, who can be considered something of a tailor himself when it comes to transforming interior spaces for his exclusive clientele.
“Where you live is a reflection of your lifestyle and the clients who come to us have such a lifestyle, and they want to show it off in a specific way; either through their restaurant or through their home – or if they don’t have that lifestyle yet, then I can design for them so that they can grow into it and aspire to [live in a certain way].”
The man behind the interiors of some of the hottest restaurants in Hong Kong – including Hansik Goo, Miss Lee and Elephant Grounds, to name a few – was actually a corporate architect for 10 years before he made his debut in the world of interior design.
“There was really nothing I did in corporate architecture that I was proud to show off to my friends,” he says. “It was all ‘bling bling’.”
Having moved away from the rigid, monotonous show flats that surrounded him as a corporate architect, Acuna now curates thoughtful and inviting interiors that reflect his clients’ personalities. In particular, modern Korean restaurant Hansik Goo was designed in close collaboration with its chef Mingoo Kang, who actually took part in designing floorboards and selecting the restaurant’s colour tones.
“Everywhere in Hong Kong, when you think of Korean restaurants, you think of that barbecue grill or fried chicken restaurant. I think it’s very cliché,” Acuna says. In Hansik Goo, however, customers can find a homage to modern-day Seoul in which the idea of a traditional Korean house is given a contemporary twist.
“Material-wise, the stone and timbers used [in Hansik Goo] are related to the traditional Korean home,” the designer says. “The tiling, green fabrics and blue tiles were more about bringing an abstract concept of nature, like the sky and vegetation, into the space using materials and colour.”
Acuna is also known for designing residential interiors for Hong Kong’s up-and-coming millennials, many of whom after seeing the world are settling down in the city, purchasing their first homes and looking to create their own high-quality living spaces.
“It’s funny because their kind of luxury is different from their parents’ kind of luxury,” he says. “Their parents’ luxury is super ‘bling bling’, glitz and glamour – and that doesn’t necessarily add to a better quality of life.”
Acuna’s bespoke design DNA can be seen in all of his residential work, especially for a travel-loving couple’s Valverde Residence. He added pink marble slabs to their kitchen walls and floor, which the designer describes as “ridiculously crazy”. “Their parents don’t get it at all,” he says, laughing. “Their parents walked in here and were like, “We don’t get it”, which means I did something good.”
COVID-19, meanwhile, hasn’t slowed Acuna down. Working entirely through Zoom, the designer and his team are finishing up a project with Four Seasons Macao. They’re also working on a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh, with no plans to set foot in Vietnam.
When asked whether the pandemic posed a challenge, the designer suggests otherwise. “There are companies now that can map out interior spaces of job sites like the Google Maps walking tool!” Acuna says, clearly in awe. “They’ll send you the URL link and you can measure the job site. There’s a ruler tool and everything, as if you’re walking around on site.
“I mean, I would love to obviously fly somewhere to the job site and get my Marco Polo points,” he jokes. “But I think the pandemic weirdly made my designers more creative as they could design from wherever they wanted to. If anything, [remote technology] makes me more accessible.”
On designing in the age of COVID-19, Acuna emphasises the importance of quality and atmosphere while creating a space. “Post-COVID, the home is not a throwaway thing anymore; it’s something that you really have to look at,” he says. “For hospitality and restaurant designers, the owners, they just want people to feel good when they’re in their space or feel that they can stay longer. It’s not ‘go in and go out’ anymore. It means giving a bit more value and quality to the way people feel when they’re in a space.”